Chapter One: Broken Entry
A warm breeze passed by, howling against the pillars of the impressive building. During the winter months, many of the city’s denizens huddled in their homes. But once the spring thaw arrived, Atalatha was a bustling city.
A series of footsteps made their way to the exit, polished boots tapping against the shining floor. One pair abruptly stopped and turned.
“Thank you all ever so much for coming,” Maximus said. “I hope you enjoyed yourself, and I look forward to seeing you – each of you – again.”
His guests, wealthy and well dressed, contentedly wished him well, and began down the steps. The man was left alone in the museum, waving farewells to the donors who had visited during the first open day that year.
When Maximus was certain that the attendees were out of sight, he let go of a deep sigh, as if he had a belly full of tainted air.
After he filled his lungs back up, eh stood straighter, his eyes pointed at the building across the street. The place was odd, but it belonged to a dear friend. Chortling to himself, he shook his head before turning and heading deeper into the Museum of Wonders.
He couldn’t have known about the child lurking just aside the building. As the older man’s footsteps withdrew into the museum, the unexpected visitor slowly tiptoed from the shadows.
The boy was twelve, covered from head to toe in cracked, torn linens. On his feet, he wore rags that were tied into makeshift shoes with heavy twine. He made an almost imperceptibly quiet sound as he walked.
He, too, disappeared within the museum.
The dragon in front of him caught his attention, but didn’t startle him. He knew of the statue of Batrura. He understood that its fearsome eyes judged all those who passed into the main hall of the building.
Clinging to the shadows where he could, the street rat moved along the perimeter of the room. No matter how close or how far he was from that statue, he always felt like those eyes were upon him.
Finally, he crept beneath it, entering the darkened hall.
A pungent aroma wafted through the museum, like too many oils mixed together. The waif held his hand to his face, covering his nose, but that scent was overpowering. Before long, he had forgotten all about that odor though, fixated instead on the repeated clangs and thuds that resonated from deeper within the place.
He soon found his steps keeping the beat, only inching forward whenever he heard the metallic thrum. Almost like a dance, the child pressed forward, until he reached another large room.
The evening sky pierced through a single tall window. Several stars and the moon lent their light, splashing down upon the tiled floor. Stopping just short of entering the place, the waif looked inside. At least a dozen objects of interest lined the walls. Relics of wars long passed, antiquities of man’s earliest emergence from the earth, and even a weapon or two were on display, kept secure underneath thick glass.
Two busts sat on squared marble pedestals, just at the entrance to the room. It was that faint starlight that assisted the child, for as he bent low, he could see the nearly invisible wire that passed between the stands. Taking care to lift his feet high, he crossed over.
The banging stopped, and the street rat wondered if perhaps there was some other way that he had been discovered. He sped ahead, dipping into the far corner of the room, away from the light’s embrace.
A loud hiss resounded from within the museum, and fantasies of the dragon in the hall coming to life ran rampant throughout the youth’s mind. It was that thought that coerced him deeper into the darkness of the building.
More items were on display as the waif proceeded on. Odd wands were stored behind heavy glass, an old painting sat high on the wall between two oddly colored torches, and a large axe sat firmly upon the wall, a length of chain affixed to its head. The street rat took some time at each of the displays, fixated on all of the curiosities. Even as the banging resumed, he remained focused on the unique items.
Several of the antiquities had bronzed plaques situated beneath them. In the shadows it was a struggle to see the engraved words. The youth approached each display and gently ran his fingers against the letters.
A strong scent emanated from within the museum then, like too much sewer crept up from beneath the streets outside. An uncomfortable burp escaped the child, who forcefully covered his lips with the palm of his hand.
With a stifled grunt, he continued onward.
Far at the end of the hall, a light cast out through the shadows. A dark silhouette played through that light, raising its arm high, and striking it against the ground as if in vengeance. Each one of those was followed by the metallic clang.
The boy understood, then, that the curator struck diligently and forcefully a hammer.
That determined work ethic would provide just the distraction the street rat needed.
He continued along the hall, where more highly valued items were placed. So close to the owner’s sanctuary, they had to be worth a great deal. One by one, he placed his hands on display cases, trying to lift them. None of the protective sheaths budged however, defying his craft.
A silent harrumph shook the boy’s chest. His eyes fell upon a glimmering object to his side, just beyond where the curator’s light poured into the hall. A ceremonial looking dagger sat upon the wall, seemingly floating there. There was no pedestal, no wire, just the plaque beneath it.
He found himself drawn to that inscription.
The letters explained that its former owner, Jasmine Byrne, had used it to return Roark, the Mad King, to the underworld.
After ruminating on that long forgotten event, the boy shrugged, and reached for the blade.
“You’re wasting your time,” he suddenly heard. His legs almost shook out from beneath him. “Everything is firmly bolted down.”
Swallowing hard, the street rat stepped back and turned around. From that angle, he could see Maximus in that back room, and knew he had been spotted.
With shoulders hunched and his head bowed just slightly, the waif stepped into the doorway. All of his guilt was cast aside then, replaced immediately by fear.
A gasp forcibly ripped its way from his lungs. There, on the floor, was the mutilated corpse of a horse. The boy wanted to run, but his legs teetered, and he lost his balance, tipping into the doorway.
“Easy lad,” Maximus said, finally turning to the young boy. “It isn’t going to hurt you.”
The museum curator had a nonchalant attitude about the intruder. He hadn’t made eye contact, instead passing by the street rat. As he crossed before him, the child could see the layer of grime upon the apron the man wore. Dark streaks and smudges covered Maximus. He looked nothing like he had when he dismissed the visitors earlier.
As the older man drifted out of sight, the lad’s vision was once again drawn to the horse carcass on the ground. Its torso had been neatly severed so that only half of the body remained. Its eye was drawn open wide, as if it clearly experienced that horror, even in death.
“It was dead for quite some time before I did that to it,” Maximus said. “Died on the side of the road on the way from Seramore. The owner had to put him down. His legs gave out.” When the boy said nothing, he clapped his hands together, and walked back toward the carcass. “He was going to just bury it, but I paid to take it.”
“Why would you pay to do… that?” the street rat suddenly said. He tensed up when the words were spoken, as if he expected to be carved in half next.
Maximus sheepishly grinned and threw his arms out wide.
As the museum curator fell back into his wooden chair beside the mutilated horse corpse, the boy noticed the sheet behind him for the first time. It was draped over something large, nearly completely covering it. He noticed the small bronze spots just at the floor, however.
Gulping down a mouthful of air, the street rat stepped forward. “Is that what smells so bad?”
Maximus looked toward the horse, and scrunched up his face. “Unfortunately, yes. I’ve been keeping it in ever-ice, but it seems like every time I take it out, it thaws faster and faster. To tell you the truth, I’ve begun to get used to the stench.” He looked at the intruder, who stood with wide eyes and a drooping jaw. “What is it, boy?”
“You keep the body in hell?” he asked.
“What?” the curator wondered. “No. No. Not Evarice,” he clarified, remarking on the deepest hell, where demons dwelled. “I keep it in ever-ice. I just store it in a room in the back that I’m calling a freezer.”
“But… why? Who needs half of a horse?”
Maximus flashed an uneasy grin, and rubbed his hand on the back of his neck. “It is pretty grotesque, but I can assure you, it’s necessary research.”
“Research?” the boy asked. An air of incredulity sat upon his tongue as he crossed his arms over his chest.
“I can see you’re not going to let this one go easily,” the curator said. “I’ll speak quickly, so the stench doesn’t have the chance to overwhelm us. Do not ask me to repeat myself. I’d sooner remove you from the building than waste my time.”
The street rat locked his jaw, and nodded his consent.
Standing up, the bones just below Maximus’ knees cracked in protest. He groaned, though a smile began forming on his face. “Have you ever heard of Seramore? It’s a beautiful city, few days southeast of here. It sits on this grand mesa, like it’s reaching toward the heavens. Down below it though, they have what they call ‘the ring’.
“The city is well protected on all sides because it’s difficult to get to,” the curator continued. “Only one land bridge crosses over a wide ravine that surrounds that mesa. Over the ages, the people of Seramore have put sweat on their brows, toiling away at the ravine until it became the ring.
“A massive racetrack, can you believe it? And Seramore is no small town, either. Only the best and brightest think to win a day in the ring, and it puts a lot of requirement on a man and his horse.”
Maximus sighed then, staring at the far wall of the room, as if a door to the past was open, swung ajar so he could see. “A man who doesn’t respect the ring is sure to find his fair share of disappointment. A good horse will press on until its legs give out, and with the purse of gold that the winner of the biggest races gets, that happens far more often than it should. Every man is a dreamer, and those dreams are so frequently the downfall of someone or something else.
“As I said, this horse was run into the ground,” the curator said, his voice resonating with a tinge of regret. “Its owner ran him hard in the race. To its credit, the horse made it to the end. But it didn’t place, and the owner wasn’t paid a single coin. He could have stopped at any time, but that dream was poison in his mind. All he saw was the money – not the pains his horse was going through to see his rider to his wishes. A good horse would take its rider to Evarice and back, if it could.
“I found this horse on the side of the road, already having taking its last breath. It was easy to recognize it as a racehorse. It still had blood in its nostrils from the rapid, hasty breaths it had to take. Even though it was weary, its owner wasn’t going to let it wait long. Someone who only cares for money won’t think long enough of others. I’m sure this horse was going to be sold to someone with a carriage or a wagon, and he would have worked until the end of his days.
“It didn’t take much to convince the man to sell it to me,” Maximus said. “After all, it was already dead. He was already digging the shallow grave, growling all the way. Likely a patrol from Seramore had seen the horse drop, and warned him not to let the body just lie on the road.
“So I offered the fool what he wanted. A little bit of coin for a dead horse,” he said, a quiet grown in his voice. “This steed will be more appreciated by me in death than it ever was by him when it was alive.
“I put the poor thing in my wagon, and drove it back to Atalatha. I had to call in a few favors of course. The wizard that lives in that great black tower in the center of town had to make the ever-ice for me, and that was no easy task. He had to apprehend some Frost Giant blood and magical water from the Raster Springs, far to the south.
“That wait is where the smell came from,” the curator insisted. “We kept the horse in stillweed for as long as possible, but that ride from Seramore was a long one. Had to bat away my share of flies that day.”
He shook his head, and then his hand. “Eventually, the wizard created the ever-ice for me, and I began storing the steed in with it. Once it was rock solid, I took a week to saw through it.”
As silence entered the room, the boy stared at the curator. Maximus threw his hand out wide, indicating the completion of his tale.
“But why?” the street rat asked. “Who needs half of a horse?”
Standing up, his knees cracking, Maximus stepped to the side. He placed his hand on the sheet, grinning from ear to ear.
“I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “That story is a mite longer, so I’ll need something from you in return.” When he was sure he had the boy’s attention, he grasped the cover more fiercely. “I want you to promise me that you’ll never steal again.”
Swallowing hard, the waif slowly began to nod.
Maximus couldn’t keep his grin from stretching into a smile. In one hasty motion, he tugged the sheet away.
The boy couldn’t hide his intrigue. His eyes widened and he took a step forward.
There before him was a spectacle of awe. A beast of bronze, tin and silver stared at him as if it was aware of his presence. Fully formed, yet lacking some features, the clockwork steed was impressive to behold. Maximus ran his hand through the horse’s artificially attached mane.
“This,” the curator said, “is Equinicus.”